What Ben Shapiro’s frenzied reaction to a BBC interview tells us about political tribalism

Historians will credit Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with having been ahead of his time on the nature of political discourse and on the populist transformation of what was once called conservatism. Mr. Orbán has avoided all debates with his political opponents since 2006 and finessed the tribal approach to politics that was only adopted by others in North America and Europe a decade later. Ben Shapiro, the self-confident and cocky social media personality who is followed by two million people on Twitter and 600,000 on YouTube, is both a product and creator of this new era of tribalism. In this world, journalists are seen only in categories of left or right, rather than competent or incompetent. More interesting still is this question: how is it that loud, strident and infinitely self-confident social media personalities such as Mr. Shapiro become so thin-skinned as to walk out of interviews, when they are presented with real, critical questions?

The incident referenced above occurred when Mr. Shapiro, woefully ill-prepared and in a prickly mood, agreed to an interview on the BBC with conservative journalist Andrew Neil. Mr. Shapiro, having become far too accustomed to the social media echo chambers, where fawning fans simply reinforce the content producer and where like-minded YouTube personalities stroke each other’s egos in friendly podcasts, failed to understand that the purpose of Mr. Neil’s BBC programme was to ask questions that he knew would challenge his guest and, at times, to play devil’s advocate in order to ensure that he does not prove evasive. Almost immediately after being confronted with actual questions, rather than simply being reinforced and allowed to rant at his pleasure, Mr. Shapiro resorted labeling the interviewer as a biased leftist, after he pressed him on his support for draconian new abortion laws in the U.S. state of Georgia.   This is how the instructive exchange occurred:

Shapiro: Are you an objective journalist or are you an opinion journalist?

Neil: I’m a journalist who asks questions.


Shapiro: Why don’t you just say that you’re on the left? Is this so hard for you? Why can’t you just be honest?

(Neil laughs and is genuinely amused.)

Shapiro: It’s a serious question.

Neil: Mr. Shapiro, if you only knew how ridiculous that statement is, you wouldn’t have said it.

Andrew Neil (left) interviews Ben Shapiro (right) on the BBC.

Indeed, Mr. Shapiro’s statement was ridiculous. Mr. Neil spent over a decade working for Rupert Murdoch, was later a contributor to the conservative Daily Mail, as a university student, he served as Chairman of Britain’s Federation of Conservative Students and at one point in his career took a job with the Conservative Party. In more recent years, he supported Britain’s military involvement in Afghanistan and also the invasion of Iraq, and has questioned climate change. Only in Mr. Shapiro’s mind, one which he has allowed to become dull, encircled as he is by pandering in his social media echo chamber, is Mr. Neil a leftist.

Mr. Shapiro does provide some nuance in a handful of responses. He explains that he, and many other conservatives, see President Donald Trump as a vehicle with which to forward a conservative agenda, even if he continues to have misgivings about Mr. Trump’s character, particularly some of his rhetoric. He added that among the Democratic candidates Joe Biden was best suited to defeat Mr. Trump in 2020, as Mr. Trump does much better when he grinds novice politicians into the ground–and given that Mr. Biden’s past has already been exposed over the course of decades in public service, he is much more immune to these attacks. Mr. Shapiro would still vote for Mr. Trump in 2020, even if his opponent was Mr. Biden, as “the damage that President Trump has done to the country on a character and rhetorical level has already been done and cannot be undone. I don’t see it as getting worse day by day. This is the new status quo, unfortunately.”

Another way of looking at this: the arsonist has already burned to the ground the house and the entire neighbourhood around it. The damage has been done and it can’t get any worse. So why not just give him a new pack of matches?

The interview became especially testy when Mr. Neil asked Mr. Shapiro whether or not he feels that he has contributed to the rhetorical unraveling of American political discourse and whether his own strident, often outlandish statements have not done significant damage. One of these included a statement that Jews who voted for Barack Obama were “Jews in name only.” This is somewhat slippery terrain for Mr. Neil, considering his own history of questionable comments on various issues. But Mr. Shapiro, as ill-prepared as he was, had nothing to fall back upon, other than an insulted, hysterical and angry response. At one point, he resorted to claiming that Mr. Neil was just trying to “make a quick buck on the BBC off the fact that I’m popular and nobody has ever heard of you.”

Mr. Neil’s response here, again, was spot on: “There are not many bucks to be made on the BBC, unlike on American broadcasting, Mr. Shapiro.”

There’s an old-fashioned saying and one that seems to fit this situation well: it would appear as though Mr. Shapiro, despite his millions of online fans and expansive online content, is not ready for prime time.


  1. Very poor show Ben.
    I’m surprised, he’s usual pretty quick witted and focused.
    Yes, too much of easy going has dulled him it seems.

  2. A pox on both their houses. Nothing to admire or applaud or learn from. Cheap, superficial, uninformed journalism on one side, cheap, superficial opinion-mongering on the other. Both self-righteous and hypocritical, both ready to descend into an urban diss-fest. Shame, shame and shame.

  3. Pity. Ben’s a rather nice name.

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